“Oh, Introverted World” – June 29, 2009

The Atlantic had a great article recently about introverts, and extroverts’ inability to truly understand them. In “Caring for Your Introvert,” Johnathan Rauch writes that

[s]cience has learned a good deal in recent years about the habits and requirements of introverts. It has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people….[A]fter an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: “I’m okay, you’re okay—in small doses.”

While introverts make up 25% of the population, we remain a very misunderstood–and even oppressed, Rauch suggests–group of people. I don’t know that I’d go that far, but I agree with Rauch that traits that characterize extroverts–outgoing, people-persons–are seen as positive, while traits that are applied to many of us introverts–loners, guarded, private–are seen as negatives.

I was just at dinner with a group of people. I spent 5 minutes being “on,” telling stories, reacting presently, and then suddenly the light went out. It’s almost comical in that I see it happen; I feel my energy drop and my patience wane. I still smile and nod and laugh when I’m supposed to–and I’m always grateful to be around company–but I can’t turn that switch back on. This is the whole reason I abandoned my elementary teaching degree; I don’t sustain the necessary energy.

Rauch writes about presidents and politicians typically being extroverts: Clinton and George W. among others. He says that “to think of the few introverts who did rise to the top in politics–Calivin Coolidge, Richard Nixon–is merely to drive home the point.”

But Rauch doesn’t mention Obama. While Obama does give great speeches and seems to feed off large crowds, one gets the sense that he needs his time and space to recharge. Obama reads and writes and wants time to reflect. He’s definitely one of us.

Rauch concludes:

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s anorientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”

Third, don’t say anything else, either.

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